"…And she smiles at the future." ~Proverbs 31:25

Young children LOVE to learn new things, and I love being there to watch my little one’s eyes light up as she discovers and experiences new things every single day.


Before I go on, I need to get one thing off my chest. As far as education goes, I strongly believe that there are only two things that you really NEED to be doing with your toddler:

1. Read to her. A LOT.

2. Play with her. A LOT.

Young children learn by playing. This isn’t just my opinion; there is a ton of research to back it up.

Our hula girl doing her funny little dance

My own experience with my oldest children also validates this position. They are both excellent readers and communicators and have done well all through school, although we did very little in the way of formal schooling when they were toddlers and preschoolers. We read A LOT, played A LOT, and interacted A LOT, and learning took place naturally, as it does with all young children.

So, if all you do with your tot is read, read, read and play, play, play…you are doing enough! (Read that again and again until it sinks in.)

I adamantly insist that you not feel guilty if you are not doing any type of formal education with your little one. Having said that…I also know that some little ones–especially those who have older siblings who are “doing school” at home–are more than ready to get in on the action and have their own “school.”

My youngest falls into this category. Her whole face lights up at the mention of the phrase, “tot school,” and she’ll drop whatever she’s doing and come running the instant she hears the words. If I don’t bring it up, SHE will ask ME. She is only two and a half, but with three older homeschooled siblings in the house, she wants her special learning time, too.

Of course, I am using the term “school” very loosely here, in reference to short, simple, FUN activities that my toddler and I can enjoy together when we have the time and inclination. There is no schedule. We don’t do it every day. Sometimes we do it more than once a day, IF she wants to, but never for more than about 15 minutes at a time. So please, if you take away some of these ideas to try with your little one, let him be in the driver’s seat. Enjoy the activities only until he loses interest (or ideally, before), then switch gears and do some more another day. The learning will happen; just have fun!


So, what do we do at our house when it’s time for tot school?  Well….in addition to reading zillions of books, working lots of puzzles, and doing the typical toddler play activities like scribbling, dancing, singing, and pretending with dolls and animals, these are a few of the more structured activities our toddler enjoys:


Transferring objects from one container to another is always a hit with young children. You can see from Remington’s smile how much she enjoys this activity!

On this particular day, Remi started moving the marbles into the empty water bottle with her fingers.

Eventually we moved to transferring them with a pair of kitchen tongs.

Both activities are great for promoting hand-eye coordination. (I think next time we’ll try a spoon.) And she had just as much fun pouring the marbles back into the original container.

In the end, she wanted to play with the marbles–examining them, rolling them around, and making a LOT of noise with them!

Here’s another transferring activity Remi enjoys. The idea is to use the scoop to move a pompom into each indentation of the paint tray. (All these pieces came from Dollar Tree.) You could do the same with your kitchen tongs and an empty ice tray.

It’s not as easy as it looks…at least not when you’re two… and at first I was a little afraid that she’d get frustrated when she “missed.” But, I needn’t have worried. Look at her reaction:

Each time a little pompom rolls away, she gets more tickled. I have priceless videos of her laughing hysterically every time she messes up. (Yes, it’s just one more example of HER teaching ME. What if that were my reaction to all MY mess-ups?)

You can also have your toddler try to transfer beads with a scoop, or cotton balls with a clothes pin, or dice between plastic cups. Don’t worry about success–just let him have fun! (In this case, that IS success.) He will get better with practice.


Stringing beads is another great way to “work on” hand-eye coordination.

We have wooden beads, plastic beads, giant buttons, foam pieces…She loves to string them all!  Lacing cards serve the same purpose and are also fun. Or, try stringing loop cereal or tube pasta. Once the concept of stringing is down, you can start working on patterns.

Counting Games

Personally, I think children should be taught about shapes, colors, letters and numbers  through fun and games, NOT flashcard drills. Here’s one example of how to make that happen:

Some days at snack time, I will draw a simple blue oval on a piece of paper and tell Remi that’s the pond. I give her some Goldfish crackers and she counts each one aloud as she places it in the pond.

However many fish she can move into the water…i.e., however high she can count…is how many crackers she gets to eat for her snack (although we’ll soon have to discontinue this as her ability increases!)

This is a good motivation for a hungry toddler to practice counting higher, and a fun way to learn one-to-one correspondence as well. To change things up, you could draw a simple tree and let your little one add Cheerios as “fruit,” or have her add raisins to an animal for “spots.”  Let your imagination run wild and see what games you can come up with.


Learning to sort by color, size, or other similarity is a valuable skill for toddlers and preschoolers. Counting Bears are great for this…

…but your little one could also sort blocks, beads, marbles, buttons, Skittles or jellybeans, colored paper or felt pieces, plastic coins, Fruit Loops, Unifix cubes, crayons, game pieces, pompoms, colored pasta, Legos, foam shapes…You get the idea!  She can sort the pieces into a muffin pan, an egg carton, paper cupcake liners, an ice-cube tray, or whatever other divided container you can find. Just put one item of each color (or size, etc.) into each compartment to get her started, and let her figure out what goes where.

Small spaces

Poking an item into a small hole requires concentration and dexterity. There are lots of ways to practice this. I love these pictures of Remi inserting dry spaghetti strands into the holes of a shaker jar…

…because so many of the pieces ended up in her mouth!

(No, she’s not holding them in her mouth…She actually crunched them up and ate them.) Putting plastic coins in a piggy bank is another good activity of this kind.

Messy art

I know, I know, you were hoping I wouldn’t say it. But making messes is what little ones love best, so we might as well let them do it artistically! I don’t know any small child who doesn’t love to squish Play-Doh or plop paint.

As you can see, Remi’s style is great, gloopy gobs of pink paint…always pink…on top of more big pink globs. She’s very consistent! I have learned to let her do this on the tile, even though that means lugging the easel down the stairs. It’s worth it to me not to have to worry about cleaning paint spills out of carpet, especially since she sometimes “forgets” to stay on the paper…

(Ummm….Maybe we need bigger paper?) The immense pleasure this experience brings a young child is worth the mess and trouble…at least every once in a while. (Remi would do this EVERY day if I let her. I don’t.)

On days when you can’t handle the potential mess, try putting some thick paint into a zipper bag for your toddler to squish around in his hands.


Simple sticker books are big with my little one right now, too.

She also loves just placing random stickers…on paper, her clothes, and her skin. (It’s a good time to teach where stickers do NOT go, too.)

Independent play

In addition to the activities Remi and I do together (where I’m not teaching, as much as playing along, giving guidance, and encouraging), our tot school also includes some solo activities that can keep her busy while I’m working with the other kids. Toddlers and preschoolers are busy little people. If not provided with safe, fun activities to keep them engaged, they’ll find something else to get into! During this time, it’s good to have some parameters for your little one. We do this either by strapping her into a chair near the table where we’re working…

…or by giving her “blanket time.” Which of those we choose just depends on the activity (and how antsy she is at the moment). If it requires some space, I’ll put the building blocks, animals, Little People, play food and dishes, dolls, or whatever she’ll be doing on a blanket and she must stay on the blanket with the toys.

Reading to her babies during blanket time

Other blanket-time activity ideas might include cars, trains, Duplos, and stacking items like cups and boxes. If the activity is messy, I put her on a felt-backed plastic table cloth on the floor to play.

Often these independent play times produce a lot of NOISE…but this way I always know she’s safely occupied and within sight and reach.

I’ll be sharing lots more ideas during the rest of this week’s posts, so please come back daily and feel free to share your own ideas in the comments. I’d love to hear what keeps your little one happily learning. And don’t worry, tomorrow I’ll tell you how to enjoy the process without breaking the bank! Here’s what’s on for the week:

Monday: Helping our wee helpers

Tuesday: Tot School fun

Wednesday:  Tot School on a shoestring

Thursday: Tot School organization

Friday: My favorite toddler resources

And, the bonus post…

In the meantime, you might want to check out this site where I got some of my activity ideas.

Thanks for stopping by!


Comments on: "Tot School Fun (Tiny Tots Week, Day 2)" (6)

  1. Amy Worlow said:

    I love these activities. I have been reading up on visual perception problems (for Ashleigh) and these ideas are great! I plan on incorporating some of them into games and projects to help Ashleigh without her thinking it’s a ‘baby’ game. I read about one the other day that we did. I took a wire hanger and pulled the bottom down to form a ‘paddle’ and then covered it with pantyhose. Ashleigh used it to keep a balloon in the air. We used a balloon that was not very full and I noticed how fast it bounced. Sooo, we had a spontaneous science experiment. Would a balloon with more air bounce different? We blew up another balloon (this time with more air) and it was slower as she hit it with the paddle. Fun! Thanks for the ideas!

    • Oh, Amy, that makes me so happy! I think you could definitely adapt some of these for an older child, especially if you do them together, either as partners or in a contest/race. If she sees YOU having fun, it won’t seem babyish to her. I’d LOVE to hear back about how it goes. Oh, and tomorrow, thanks to your fun idea, we’ll be pulling out the ping pong paddles (’cause I’m lazy) and balloons here at our house. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Lisa Tompkins said:

    I just love the marble transferring idea! My only problem would be that if one of those shiny marbles made its way to the floor, my 16 month old would be the first to find it for sure! I enjoyed your post!

    • Yes, you definitely have to be right there with them the whole time. Maybe you could do this during the baby’s nap time, unless they’re both down at the same time.

  3. Amy…when my kiddos were little I used ketchup and mustard in a ziploc bag to ‘squish’ around instead of the paints and then it was always fun to snip a corner off and let them squeeze it on their hot dog or whatever she desired at mealtime as it was now properly ‘mixed’ 🙂

    • I can’t wait to try this! What a great example of using what you already have–thanks for sharing the idea! (I see Addy wanting a turn with that, too…)

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